Marshall McLuhan’s contention that “the medium is the message” remains so beloved of opinion page pundits that it’s overdue a run in the sports pages. And this week’s contribution to the game’s pay dispute by Cricket Australia chairman David Peever could hardly be improved on as an illustration.
For those who dimly recollect a McLuhan bowling seam-up for Western Suburbs or playing on the half-forward flank for Carlton, he was a Canadian philosopher who argued that the form of a message is every bit as significant as its content.
And that, in a dispute as much about authority as it is money, should guide our interpretation of Peever’s having his say via a column published in this newspaper yesterday: that is, he chose not to appear, not to answer questions, not to incur the risk of interruption or contradiction, but simply to publish, in order to control.
Peever said some things — we’ll get to those. Yet the step itself was almost as self-revelatory as the moment a couple of months ago when CA condemned the Australian Cricketers Association for issuing a press release by issuing a press release.
So what did Peever say? Alas, not much. The first four paragraphs foamed with indignation — “most tawdry”, “complete myth”, “deeply insulting”, “deliberately fabricated”, “disrespects all those involved across the cricket community” — about the role of ACA adviser Greg Combet in portraying cricket as “an industrial relations battleground”.
Well, heaven forfend that one should perceive a collective bargaining agreement as having anything to do with industrial relations. But to quote Peever: “The suggestion that CA’s push to modify the player payments model has nothing to do with genuine issues facing the game is an insult to everyone involved at CA, including other members of the board. It is also an insult to all those from across the state and territory associations who understand and support the need for change.”
Goodness me — everyone’s so insulted. But this is the vigorous threshing of a straw man. Precisely nobody says the dispute has “nothing to do with genuine issues facing the game”; they merely sniff the unmistakeable bouquet of bullshit when CA insists that this is all the dispute is about.
“I recognise the place of collective bargaining,” Peever continues proleptically, “and I accept the industrial relations framework in Australia.”
Yet this is a bit like saying that he recognises the place of the speed limit and accepts the custom of driving on the left-hand side of the road.
All anyone worth listening to in this debate has argued — as my colleague Peter Lalor did recently — is that the relationship of the professional athlete to modern sport makes a problematic fit with the conventional relationship of employee to employer because the athlete represents both producer and product.
It’s a simple enough idea. CA has acquiesced in it for 20 years by paying cricketers out of a share of revenue. Those cricketers are entitled to ask what has changed, especially when they see athletes in other competitions, rightly or wrongly, agitating for similar status.
In one respect, I’m inclined to agree with Peever. His merely having worked for Rio Tinto should not make of CA a “union basher”. But what CA is doing is behaving as a monopoly. And of monopolies a wariness is always justified, especially when they assert their market power, as CA has in escalating this dispute.
Not that you’d guess this from the victimhood that oozes from Peever’s screed. By his account, CA has always respected the ACA; it has been “very generous”; it has endured a campaign against it of “sustained ferocity” waged by others with a “reckless strategy”.
Yet an express principle of CA’s proposal, unchanged from the very beginning, was that it cease to provide funding for the ACA — a hitherto uncontroversial convention, in recognition of the union covering 100 per cent of Australia’s male and female international and domestic cricketers. What could have been more adversarial?
As for CA’s generosity, its proposed package, stripped of payroll tax, rolled-over adjustment ledger and pie-eyed prizemoney projections then stretched across a greater number of players reflecting the inclusion of women, actually looks a bit parsimonious.
Finally, who did what to whom? For even if one accepted every other aspect of Peever’s position — and of his commitment to grassroots cricket I would never doubt his sincerity — it is CA that has kept turning up the dial in this dispute. It is CA that attempted to turn the top international cricketers against the rest by seeking to buy the former off with turbocharged rewards.
It is CA that has tried to turn female cricketers against male, with, among other things, an attempt last week to make a big deal out of the last adjustment ledger that was lamer than a three-legged dog.
It is CA that has sought to turn grassroots cricket against elite cricketers — an entirely bizarre gambit when the success of both are so strongly linked.
And in the end it was CA that walked away from the cricketers, not the other way around, that terminated their relations with extreme prejudice, that isn’t paying them now, that won’t backpay them ever, that opposes them pursuing their livelihoods anywhere else.
In instituting the lockup, CA also caused the players’ intellectual property to revert to the ACA. Yet Peever now criticises the ACA for its decision to “lock up player IP into its own business ventures”. Precisely what was the ACA meant to do? Put it in the fridge?
To surrender something so valuable was the very definition of a “reckless strategy”. And CA’s commercial and broadcasting partners will, one imagines, be letting it know.
In the meantime, players have demonstrated their good faith by continuing to train, keeping their own counsel, and hoping for resolution, while CA have gone on blaming everyone but themselves. And while the message of Peever’s communique yesterday may have strained for the odd conciliatory sentiment, the medium tells otherwise — that CA remains no closer to understanding how clumsily it has gone about its work.